Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Home for the Holidays: Work and Balance during Breaks

December is usually time for wrapping up: gifts, lab work, grading, chapters. There is something seductive about starting on January 1st with a fresh slate, and many of us try and cram a bunch of work into the end of the year to make that deadline happen. But it can be complicated as the end of the year can also mean travel to see family or friends, holiday celebrations, or (more often than not) true exhaustion after a busy year. Here are my best tips for setting up work during break so that you can both move forward on the work front and enjoy the light that the end of the year can contain. 

Set boundaries. 

  • Communicate what you need, as clearly as you can. When I go home to Michigan, it can be so easy to fill up every minute with family and friend time, but if I need to get work done, this can be a huge obstacle. Letting all impacted parties know as soon as possible that you'll need to do some amount of work while traveling can help set that pattern up in advance. I like to use language like this:
    • "I'm so excited to be [coming home // going to stay with you // at the all day family event] but as you may know, I have a big deadline coming up. I'm planning on working for an hour or two every morning, but after that, I'll be all yours."
  • Compromise. Is it easier to skip one whole day of festivities and get everything wrapped up, or scattering work during down hours throughout the break? I like to make the bargain that if I've got space to work for an hour or two every day, I can make the rest of the time present and focused, with no phones or computers. It is also helpful to remind people that by skipping a low level event, you can guarantee that you'll be there for a high value one - the work is immovable but the timing can be flexible. 
  • Develop a signal for "Do not Disturb." Will you be in a location where it is easy to be distracted? Have to work in a communal space, and not your quiet office? Develop a way for people around you to quickly and quietly know you're in a focused zone without them having to ask you if you're working. Putting a sign on your bedroom that announces that if the door is shut, you aren't to be disturbed, or wearing headphones can be a great way to signal that you're in the zone. 

Set up work conditions quickly and easily. 

  • Use your work rituals. I've written about this before, but my brain associates certain visual and taste cues with working, so when I'm traveling, I make sure to bring the elements of my work ritual with me. Even if I'm in the airport lounge, my brain slips more easily into work because I've got these rituals. 
  • Find a work zone. Is there a new coffeeshop in your old childhood neighborhood? Does your uncle have a sweet home office you can borrow? Are the libraries open this week? Sometimes you have to go to a new location to totally escape the "hey, let's wrap gifts and watch Netflix" trap. Be creative - many places now have wifi, or better yet, wifi and coffee, and can help you make the most of a few quiet hours. 
  • Avoid time traps. If you only have a few hours, avoid the time consuming tasks and move right into the high value work. Avoiding Twitter, and especially email, can be incredibly effective here. Set up a vacation auto-responder to give yourself some space to respond to emails in a delayed way, put your social media on pause - use these shortened work hours for the most pressing, highest impact tasks to really feel like you accomplished something when you snuck away. 

Be mindful, be compassionate.

  • Take a few centering breaths. Have a sticky encounter when you're rushing off to finish this essay before the deadline? Feeling guilty about missing some of the festivities? Resenting every life choice that led you to be at your childhood library grading student papers while everyone else makes merry? We've all been there. Take a few deep breaths, and get re-centered. Rather than letting all that bubble up and be a low (or high) key distraction during your work sessions, write it out in a Google Doc or in your journal to pick up (or not) after. 
  • Be compassionate with others. Many of us come from backgrounds that don't totally understand all the work that goes into a graduate degree, and it can be so vulnerable to explain that you're behind on a deadline. To others, it might look like a sequence of typing activities done into various windows, but that work is important enough for you to take time away from other things to finish it. Being compassionate with others that might not understand how important the work really is can help you not feel quite as attacked when those well-meaning but probing questions and comments start to roll in. 
  • Be compassionate with yourself. Missing out on long-awaited (and expensive!) travel home can be a huge trigger for me. I start to feel guilty about not finishing things earlier, about having to take time "away" from people who care about me, about not having an idyllic holiday season, or even about not resting enough. Having to work during breaks doesn't necessarily mean that one priority is higher than another - it just means that you have a full, complex life with values and roles that sometimes overlap. We all wish we could take picture perfect breaks, and be there for every minute of every holiday, but finding a way to fit work into the whole picture of our lives, and finding the support you might not have known was there otherwise, can be a gift all its own. 

Happy holidays, everyone!